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by Nilima Rao
Soho , June 2023
276 pages
ISBN: 1641294299

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1914, Akal Singh, a Sikh police officer recruited to serve in Hong Kong, had a promising career until a blunder nearly cost him his job. Instead of dismissal, he is sent to Fiji, a sleepy backwater colony of the British Empire, where the most pressing case is a flasher, who so far has resisted capture. Akal feels at a dead end, until a missionary calls attention to a missing "coolie" woman an indentured laborer brought to Fiji to work on a sugar cane plantation, like tens of thousands of impoverished Indians in the early twentieth century. Normally, a runaway worker wouldn't be considered important enough to bother investigating, but the local newspapers have publicized the missionary's claim that she was kidnapped, shaming the local inspector general enough to dispatch Akal to the plantation.

Traveling with a sympathetic English doctor who makes regular trips to the plantation to tend to the indentured workers, Akal discovers the horrific living conditions on the "coolie lines," the dismal hovels where exhausted laborers cook their meals and sleep. Kunti, the missing woman, is supposed to have run off with an English overseer who went off to join the war that has just started in Europe, but those who knew her say she wouldn't have abandoned her young daughter. As Akal begins to ask questions, he learns more about the lives of Indian workers, while being thwarted at every step by English assumptions that they must be above such interference from a colonial subject. Ultimately, he will have to face a choice: follow orders, or follow his conscience.

Soho's crime imprint has provided a great service to mystery readers everywhere by bringing stories from around the globe to our armchairs. Now, thanks to an author who lives in Australia but has family roots among Indians who settled in Fiji after indentured servitude, we can visit a time and place that is fascinating but little known. Along with a well-wrought mystery and a vivid historical setting, she has created a protagonist who is just enough of an outsider to be an informative guide, easing our introduction to a dark history with the gentle humor and generous spirit reminiscent of Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri series. With a solid cast of minor characters to keep him company, Akal Singh may be off to a better career in Fiji than he ever hoped.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, June 2023

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